Carbing up for Cycling

by Graeme Hilditch

Training for summer sportives such as RideLondon 100 is now well under way.

As riders begin getting fitter and start spending longer and longer in the saddle, thought needs to turn to your nutrition strategy and how you plan to stay fuelled on rides lasting 40 miles +

We’ve received dozens of emails at GH Training in recent weeks asking questions about mid ride nutrition,so we figured a blog post might help to answer a few questions - and dispel a few cycling nutrition myths.

By far the most common questions we’ve been asked are - which gels are best, how often should you take them and how many should you eat are amongst the most common questions.

All these will be answered before the end of the post - but if you’re serious about nutrition, you need to look beyond your mid ride gels and focus on a aspect of carbohydrate nutrition.

Maximise carbohydrate stores

Relying purely on gels, jelly babies or energy bars to provide you enough energy to finish a long ride is a bit like relying on jerry cans full with fuel to see you through a long distance car journey.

You wouldn’t set off on a long car journey with half a tank of fuel and rely on jerry cans to top up when you run out, and by the same token, you wouldn’t (shouldn’t) set off for a long distance bike ride without ensuring your fuel (carbohydrate) stores are filled to the brim.

Perhaps not the best analogy I’ve ever used, but the principle remains that cyclists taking on long rides of longer that 2-3 hours, have to pay far more attention to their carbohydrate nutrition out of the saddle, rather than when they’re in it.

That’s not to say that mid ride feeds are not important - because they are, it’s just the carbs you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner before long rides are that much more important if you want to ride long distances.

Timing is everything

Despite what many cyclists and runners think, simply shovelling down carbohydrate rich foods at meal time isn’t the best way to ensure you’re fuelled up and ready to ride long.

The best time to replenish your carbohydrate stores is IMMEDIATELY AFTER A TRAINING RIDE.

In the first 3 hours after training, the body releases an enzyme which maximises the body’s ability to store carbohydrate. This enzyme helps us soak up our pasta, rice, bread, potatoes etc like a sponge and stores it away in the liver and muscles, where it is stored as a substance known as “glycogen.”

Although eating carbohydrate rich food outside of this “3 hour post training window” will still help to replenish your expended glycogen stores, it’s not nearly as effective and you should ensure you choose “low glycemic index” carbohydrates to avoid spikes in blood sugar.

More information about this is worthy of a separate blog post altogether, so i’ll leave it there for now.

The amount of carbohydrate you should be eating varies massively from person to person, so keep an eye out on the GH Training blog, for a more detailed post about carbohydrate quantity and training volume very soon.

Mid Ride Nutrition

Provided you have consumed enough carbohydrate both pre and post ride, then the fuel you should taking on whilst in the saddle will help to keep your glycogen levels topped up and prevent a drop in energy.

As with your pre and post ride carbohydrate nutrition, the exact quantity of carbohydrate every rider needs whist cycling long distance varies significantly.

However, as a rough guide, you should be looking to take on a maximum of 60g of carbohydrate every hour.

This equates to 3 carbohydrate gels - one taken every 20 minutes.

Some riders will find that this is excessive, but it’s important that you don’t consume more than this. If you do, stomach cramps are likely.

For more information on how to best carb up before, during and after a ride, visit the Science in Sport website.

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